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Compelled to be repelled? Why movies like ‘Saltburn’ may make you cringe and love it

A screen capture of a scene from Saltburn with two men sitting on a couch and a woman standing behind them leaning over them.
Scenes in movies like “Saltburn” can make you cringe… and we love it. Credit Amazon Studios

If you haven’t felt uncomfortable watching them, you may have felt that way hearing about the bathtub scene, the grave scene and other moments in the movie “Saltburn.

Given the film’s hype, you wouldn’t have experienced that feeling alone. 

But why would moviegoers be compelled to be repelled? Aren’t they somewhat polar reactions? 

Not necessarily. 

Northeastern University film and media experts say that films and other artwork that provoke extreme discomfort — some might say that make you cringe — can be a way to safely experience and assert control over such feelings.

“I think it has to do a lot with testing the limits of our own familiars — wanting to be OK with things and doing it through this other lens (of art) is how you can do it,” says Julia Hechtman, associate chair and teaching professor in the department of art and design at Northeastern and an expert on horror films. “It’s like a desensitization.”

Social media’s repurposing of “cringeworthy” material, meanwhile, amplifies this desire to assert and demonstrate control over such feelings. 

“Through the reaction video, someone performs cringe and creates cringe for their followers by recontextualizing a piece of media content,” explains Moira Weigel, assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Northeastern and a member of the university’s Executive Committee of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. 

“By doing this, they stake out a kind of distinctive identity for themselves: they’re not the naïve consumer, they have a take on this piece of media or culture that is different from what the director/filmmaker seemed directly to expect or intend, and they’re making a bid to establish a kind of community around that feeling — a community where they have status.”

“Saltburn” opened in theaters in November and debuted on Amazon Prime in December. 

It’s gotten people talking. 

The movie has garnered one lead actor a “Saturday Night Live” hosting gig and another a Hasty Pudding Award; inspired Brooklyn clubbers; and furthered the “reaction videos” genre on YouTube and TikTok … with entries such as “Saltburn was sick & twisted … but we’re OBSESSED” and “First Time Watching “Saltburn” And im TRAUMATISED (sic).” It’s also responsible for resurrecting the 2001 earworm “Murder on the Dancefloor” to ubiquity. 

Hechtman says she has not seen “Saltburn” (her film students did not recommend it) and stresses that she is neither a psychologist nor a psychiatrist. 

But Hechtman has focused on evoking simultaneous feelings of repulsion and curiosity through art projects focused on people’s relationship with dying and death and its rituals. And art — particularly movies — can provide a safe environment in which to experience discomfort.

“When you watch a horror movie, it’s just a movie; It’s not the real thing — nobody wants something calamitous to happen to themselves,” Hechtman explains. “But to see it unfold, and to be, ‘Wow, that wasn’t as bad as it could have been,’ because I’m protected by this space. And this disconnect, I think that’s why things are easier to consume in movies.”

“It’s familiar enough when it’s successful that you can ‘insert yourself here,’” Hechtman continues. “But foreign enough where you’re like, ‘That isn’t me.’”

This disconnect means we risk becoming “desensitized” to these visuals, however; so filmmakers “up the ante” by pushing certain taboos. 

And while there is a lot going on in “Saltburn” — a little “Brideshead Revisited,” a bit “Talented Mr. Ripley,” social commentary, a bit of camp, a bit of gothic romance — the buzz surrounding the movie has been largely generated by the shock value of certain scenes that push sexual taboos

Not surprisingly, the internet has done its thing with reaction videos to the movie’s shocking scenes — both first- and secondhand accounts  — on TikTok and YouTube. 

“It seems to me that the reaction video is using the affordance of TikTok, specifically the duet form, and set up to do something similar to what I call a hate-tweet, or a dunking tweet, would do.” Weigel says. “It’s recontextualizing, reframing the original piece of media and performing the identity of the consumer, and also trying to build some kind of community or audience for that consumer using the social media app as a means to do so.”

That can be an effective way of building influence, Weigel has found in research examining hate-sharing. 

“There has been past research — and I think a lot of us have anecdotal experiences — that show that content that people hate or beef over is particularly sticky,” Weigel says. “Our (research) takeaway was that sharing content in order to criticize or denigrate or mock or distance yourself from it can be a very effective way for individuals to gain influence within a network; one of our metrics showed that most people who hate-shared were nearly four times more influential than those who didn’t.”

Thus, the reaction videos proliferate — building more buzz for the movie and also creating, in a way, a commentary that “Saltburn” filmmaker Emerald Fennell may understand.

“Emerald Fennell as a filmmaker is so very conscious, even self-conscious, about her predecessors, about the genres and tropes that she takes up and works with,” Weigel says. 

Weigel adds that she saw “Saltburn,” and has her students write on Fennell’s earlier movie, “Promising Young Woman,” in a course on media and social change. 

“The plot and style of the film themselves are reacting to pre-existing media — narratives, images — and in that way Fennell is not so unlike the TikTok users reacting to her content,” Weigel continues. “Maybe someday they’ll make their own movie about it.”